Talking Tactics: Who will attack in the mountains this week?

With the first high summit finish in the bank, the general classification is now starting to solidify. With a hilly conclusion today and back-to-back summit finishes to tackle over the weekend, what can we expect the key players (and some of the peripheral ones) to do over the rest of this week to try to shake up the existing order?

Here’s the top ten on GC at the end of yesterday’s stage ten:

1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0.41

3. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) +2:04

4. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +2:05

5. Robert Gesink (Blanco) +2:12

6. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) +2:13

7. Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) +2:55

8. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) +3:35

9. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) +4:17

10. Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff) +4:21

Broadly speaking, riders in the top ten have two basic options: those who want to defend and consolidate their position into the second rest day (passive) and those who will seek opportunities to attack and gain time to move them up the GC (aggressive). Here’s who I see falling into which camp.

Passive: Nibali, Evans, Majka, Gesink

Nibali has earned the right to defend rather than attack (Image: Astana)

Nibali has earned the right to defend rather than attack (Image: Astana)

Let’s start with race leader Vincenzo Nibali, who has made all the right choices so far and has been rewarded with both the leader’s jersey and an advantage of at least two minutes over all but Cadel Evans. His priority now is to ensure that both he and his team maintain the energy levels they will need to defend the maglia rosa all the way to Brescia, still more than half the race distant.

He could conceivably attack on either ascents or descents, but why would he? To attack on technical descents would increase the risk of crashing for the sake of relatively small time gains. And as race leader he has no need to be overly aggressive on the ascents in this middle phase of the race. Better to bide his time, let others show their hands and burn their matches while his own team cover the most threatening moves, and save any attacks of his own for the last few kilometres of the big summit finishes on stages 14 and 15 to secure and block out finishing bonuses. Energy saved now is doubly effective in the final week as others tire.

With limited team support, will Cadel play it safe? (Image; Danielle Haex)

With limited team support, will Cadel play it safe? (Image; Danielle Haex)

Cadel Evans is in a similar position to Nibali, but with one important difference: he’s effectively on his own, as his BMC team is not as strong in the mountains as, say, Astana or Sky.

As an experienced campaigner, he also knows he cannot win the Giro this week – but he could easily lose it by being foolhardy. The Aussie has read the race superbly so far, staying out of trouble and always being on the right wheel at key moments. He will look to consolidate his position and then pick his moment to strike in the final week.

Similarly Robert Gesink, having struggled in the closing kilometres of Altopiano del Montasio, will be delighted if he can maintain his current fifth place. His form didn’t look great yesterday, and he will probably be hoping he can rediscover it later in the race. A top-five finish would match his best ever grand tour result and solidify both his own confidence and the position of a Blanco team which is still chasing sponsors.

For the 23-year-old Pole Rafal Majka any top-ten finish would represent an immense achievement, and I doubt there is any pressure from his Saxo-Tinkoff team to do anything other than consolidate. He also leads the young rider classification by 1:05 over Ag2r’s Carlos Betancur, and it will be the Colombian as much as anyone who he will be tasked with man-marking in the high mountains.

Aggressive: Uran/Wiggins/Henao, Scarponi/Niemiec, Pozzovivo/Betancur, Santambrogio

Let me start with the lone wolf of this set, Mauro Santambrogio. He could play safe and settle for, say, somewhere between sixth and eighth, but his form coming into this race has been fantastic – seventh at Tirreno-Adriatico, second at Giro del Trentino – and this is the only grand tour Vini Fantini will get a crack at this season, so I suspect he will be more likely than most to throw caution to the wind and try something spectacular on one of the summit finishes, with assistance from teammate Danilo di Luca. He might wait until next week, but I suspect he may try to spring a surprise and go on the attack on either Saturday or Sunday.

The one team who will certainly attack is Sky, and we are likely to see them employ a similar strategy to what they did yesterday. Use their super-strong train to put other teams in the red early on. Then send Sergio Henao on the attack – he’s 12th at 5:06, so any move he makes will force a response from the teams of riders in the top ten whose positions are threatened. And then use the combination of Rigoberto Uran and Bradley Wiggins to ask some searching questions of Nibali and Evans in the hope of making either or both crack.

Sergio Henao Carlos Betancur (Image: Sky)

Colombians Henao (left) and Betancur are both likely to animate in the mountains (Image: Sky)

We can also expect to see Lampre-Merida to be sniffing around for opportunities. With Michele Scarponi sixth and Przemyslaw Niemiec eighth, they offer a one-two threat which others have to take seriously and which could propel either into the top five. Even more likely, Ag2r will use the tag-team of lightweight climbers Domenico Pozzovivo (ninth) and Carlos Betancur (14th). Both excel on super-steep gradients and both were extremely lively on the Montasio climb yesterday, where first Pozzovivo stretched the leaders’ group and then Betancur attacked explosively out of it. With the big names looking towards the Galibier, don’t be surprised if we see a similar Pozzovivo/Betancur combination on the steeper slopes of Saturday’s concluding Bardonecchia climb, which averages 9.7%.

Wild-cards: Hesjedal, Duque, Sanchez

There are already only 14 riders within six minutes of Nibali, beyond which lie a clutch of capable climbers who, by virtue of their minimal threat to the top of the GC, will receive greater leeway to go on the attack in search of a stage win without having the main contenders hunt them down. There are a dozen or more highly plausible aggressors in this group – here I’ve looked at just a small handful.

It’s pretty much a nailed-on certainty that outgoing champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp, 33rd at 23:45) will look to put a miserable last few days behind him and restore some honour via a breakaway or long-range attack. Similarly, the wild-card Colombia squad have enjoyed little success so far and will be looking to justify their inclusion in the Giro with a stage win which would make their entire season. They will probably look to former under-23 world champion Fabio Duarte (39th at 29:28) to make an impact.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez has slipped to 18th overall, 7:46 down. How aggressive he is will depend on his team’s priority. He could ride relatively conservatively and consistently and hope that this yields a top-ten finish and a valuable chunk of WorldTour points. Or he could switch objectives and aim for a stage win or perhaps even the mountains jersey. Even slightly out of form, he’s certainly capable of doing either but I wonder if Euskaltel, who rely so heavily on Sanchez as their primary points scorer –  60% of the team’s WorldTour points last year – will send him down the more conservative route of continuing to target GC. We shall see.

One thing is for sure. We will see plenty of attacks in the mountains both this week and next from both contenders and opportunists, as different riders with different objectives come into conflict.

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